August 4, 2008 By David Raths
From the first day Hardik Bhatt became Chicago's CIO in February 2006, he felt comfortable pursuing innovation because Mayor Richard M. Daley blazed the trail. "The mayor has been at the forefront of innovation, from the creation of Millennium Park, to taking over the school system, to appointing a 21st Century Commission to determine how government should change to be more responsive," Bhatt said.
As soon as he became CIO, Bhatt made a proposal to Daley, not to innovate in terms of new products, but to take on complex cross-departmental challenges the city faces "whether technology is at the forefront of the solution or not," he said. He even renamed his department the Department of Innovation and Technology.
Besides traditional IT solutions, Bhatt is working on issues you might not expect a CIO to handle. One example is dealing with vacant buildings, which often become havens for gangs and drug dealers. Traditionally the issue involved nine city departments, and often the problem was passed from one to another, Bhatt explained, while citizens grew frustrated at the slow response. "We reached out to constituents and traced the issues from their calls through the system," he said. "The problem was really communication between departments. First we had to streamline the business process; then we could consider how to use technology to solve it."
Bhatt, 35, believes his mix of private-sector consulting work, a master's of business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and previous IT work for the Chicago Police Department provided a great mix of experiences to prepare him to be CIO.
"They exposed me to the subtle differences between government and the private sector," he said. It may take the city longer to buy new technology than the private sector. "But I understand we are spending taxpayers' money," said Bhatt. "For us, often the biggest return on investment is citizen benefit, and sometimes that's hard to calculate in hard dollars."
In terms of using technology to communicate with Chicago residents, Bhatt boils down the city's approach to i-government, e-government and m-government. I-government means sharing information with residents. "We have so much data," he said. "I think it is imperative to share it with citizens. We are making everything map-based, so you can see crime data, restaurant health-code violations and road closures in your neighborhood."
E-government encompasses improving city Web pages and making it easier for residents to conduct city transactions online. M-government means bringing mobility tools to employees; workers fixing potholes, for instance, can get route maps on handhelds, take photos and give immediate coordinates via GPS. It will also translate to developing systems to allow citizens to pay parking tickets or water bills via their cell phone.
Besides all the efforts to work on city business processes, Bhatt is also involved in a citywide effort to deal with an issue he knows firsthand: the digital divide. "I had such a hard time accessing technology myself in school in India in the 1980s and early 1990s," he recalled. "We had a college with 160 students and only four computers to share."
The city, he said, has started by putting $250,000 into grants to 10 nonprofit organizations to begin a process of saturating the city with digital resources to see what difference it can make.
"I have experienced the digital divide myself," Bhatt said, "so this issue has always been close to my heart."
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